Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 1)

Beads of sweat drip off Jaime’s plump face. His close-knit eyes scan the apartment, seeking any damage or misplaced items. “Everything looks good,” he says. “You’ll be getting your security deposit back within the next week.”

And with that we lock the door to our San Diego home for the final time. We have Jaime, the Total Property Management inspection manager, snap a photo of us on my iPhone before Riley and I hop in her packed-to-the-brim 2011 Acura TSX and begin our 2nd road trip in 5 months.

En route to the San Pedro port, we accidentally stumble upon a Mexican-themed farmer’s market. We order pupusas, pollo encebollados and panes rellenos in bulk to satisfy our empty stomachs. Our appetites quenched we head back to the car. I adjust the bike rack carrying Riley’s Bianchi and my Schwinn, before heading off for the port, locating only a few miles from here.

For the final 10 minutes of our drive we pass mostly construction zones and industrial sites, as this working-class city has very little beauty to boast. We park in a massive parking lot surrounded by an immense teal structure possessing thousands of multi-colored freight containers. Countless cranes maneuver these heavy chunks of rectangular plastic, steel and fiber, repositioning them onto cargo ships. In front of the industrial havoc rests the Catalina Island Tours building. Riley and I extract our backpacks from the car and load them up with camping essentials. With my 55 Liter backpacking backpack weight approximately 3 times that of Riley’s JanSport, we waddle over to our ship.

I nap as our boat floats along the Pacific for 75 minutes, towards the Two Harbors port, located on the North East part of the island. The boat docks and we follow a small herd of people, including an eccentrically dressed bride and groom, onto the island. Despite the 80lbs of combined weight on our shoulders, a sense of lightness instantly encompasses Riley and me as we step foot on this majestic plot of land. Light waves splash into the bluest bay, mirroring an equally radiant sky. Sand stretches from the water towards the areas’ only general store and restaurant. Only 2 dozen people circulate Two Harbors as the tourist season hasn’t hit full force yet. These individuals ride kayaks and eat ice cream purchased from the general store.

With the afternoon sun threatening only 5 to 6 hours of remaining daylight, Riley and I run into the general store and purchase the one essential we lack – a gallon of water. Map in hand and hip-belts tightened we set off for the 7 mile hike towards Parson’s Landing. The trail commences with a quarter mile 35 degree incline. A half hour later we reach the apex, exhausted, and wondering if this hike was a good idea. Fortunately, the trail evens out, with occasional inclines followed by immediate declines. We walk along the edge of a mountain, with breathtaking views of the ocean to our right and vegetation and rock to our left. The climate here is noticeably less arid, as the Southern Californian succulents and brown vegetation we have gotten used to has been replaced with a slightly greener and more humid ambiance.

An hour into our journey we stop to hydrate and refuel. I tie my shoe, tighten my backpack straps and begin walking again. As I look up a fuzzy creature with red fur turns to stare me in the eye before scurrying across the trail and ducking into a hole in the ground. This 4 foot bundle of joy was a fox. “I just saw one of the 4 animals posted on the Animals You May See on the Trail sign at the beginning of the hike,” I tell Riley.

“Ugh, I missed it,” Riley exclaims.

For the next hour we continue our brisk pace, stopping often to drink and eat; more so to relieve the weight on our backs than to fulfill our bellies. About 2/7 of the way through our journey, Riley and I discuss how thankful we are to the Catalina Island Conservancy. This nonprofit organization was established in 1972, through the efforts of the Wrigley and Offield families, to protect and restore Santa Catalina Island. The families deeded 42,135 acres (170.51 km2), approximately 88% of the island, to the organization. Essentially, this means that 88% of the island cannot be touched for any purposes other than hiking and maintaining trails. As such, the view Riley and I see now is the same as it was 45 years ago. This is truly amazing when considering how much towns like Coral Springs (which was 100% covered in swamp), Atlanta (which has grown from 1.5M to 5.5M people since 1972) and San Diego (which was essentially unknown outside of its military base) have grown during this time frame.

As we near the ¾ point of our hike the trail thins significantly as most prior hikers have turned back by now. “A couple more miles,” I tell Riley, who is noticeably worried about the descending sun and the increasing heaviness of her backpack. Moments later we spot a deer crossing the trail. “That’s 2 out of 4,” I say to Riley. “All that remains is a bison and a rattlesnake.” We’re still yet to see another hiker along this infrequently traveled trail.

The hike turns more inland as it cuts through a chunk of the island. We can no longer see the ocean, but are surrounded by lush fields of grass and trees. A hunch tells me to glance at one particular batch of shrubs and trees; a rather unspectacular viewing by itself. For some reason, I can’t take my eyes off it. As I near, a large brown mass forms among the green. “Holy shit, that’s a bison,” I yelp, scaring my girlfriend half to death.

“Where?” she asks.

I point to the hungry creature before us. Comparable only to the buffalo I’d see roaming the filthy streets of India; this is the largest animal I have ever seen in the wild. “At this rate, we’re bound to come across a rattler,” I tell Riley.

With less than a mile to go, a gorgeous sunset begins to form in the distance. A gradual incline among the multi-colored grasses leads to a panoramic viewpoint: mountains and fields make up 270 degrees of view and a magnificent ocean splashes wildly among the rocks in front of us. “That’s it,” I say, pointing at the isolated bay. “That’s our spot.” The setting could not be more dramatic, as we descend the final steps, completely alone except for a slight breeze, a pink and orange sky, and a greying campsite awaiting our arrival.

We arrive at a series of lockers containing supplies. We insert the key into “Locker 3” and extract firewood and water. 8 campsites make up this “primitive” campground, of which only 2 are occupied tonight: a young couple reading by the campfire a few hundred paces to our left and 3 brothers finishing up dinner a few hundred paces to our right. Starved, I immediately begin working on the fire while Riley layers warm clothes. Within an hour and a half we have a blazing fire within a circular sand pit and a makeshift chicken, broccoli and pasta dinner cooked on a $4.95 set of pots and pans from Walmart. Maybe it’s just me, but campfire food is simply the most delicious food out there.

Despite our stomachs being full, we scavenger the area for sticks to use for s’mores. Riley and I watch our marshmallows catch fire and char before inserting them between graham crackers and dark chocolate.

Exhausted, we pass out and sleep like kings. I wake up at the crack of dawn, feeling a healthy energy throughout my body. I catch the end of the sunrise before heading out on a solo adventure. I walk along a thin trail leading to…well, I’m not sure. Less than 15 minutes into my trek, I round a corner and am stopped in my tracks. 15 feet in front of my stands another massive bison; this time directly in the center of the trail. He turns to look at me and I stare back. Curiosity fills the eyes of this creature, while his jaw moves in slow, circular movements as he gnaws on some tasty breakfast grass. I take a few steps closer to the creature, wanting to get a better look and hopefully snap a photo. His eyes narrow. I take another handful of steps, now standing literally 6 feet away. His 2,000 pound frame seems to tighten. Even if he charges me, I’m way faster, I think to myself. I take one more stupid step, before the bison begins to charge at me full speed. I nearly stumble to the ground at the shock of this animal’s speed. Realizing he’s gaining ground on me, I flail blindly running as fast as I can in the direction I came. After the fastest 100 meter dash known to man, I turn around and find that the bison has given up chase. Either he got tired (which I doubt), or he was merely satisfied spooking me half to death and felt no need to continue racing after me.

When Riley finally wakes up, 3 hours later, I recount my tale and receive a verbal lashing in return. Words like “stupid,” “thoughtless,” and “idiot” pierce my ears. I probably deserve it.

We hang around the campsite a bit longer before commencing the hike back. As with most hikes, the return feels quicker and easier. We arrive back to Two Harbors in the early afternoon. First matter of business is food, so we order a – you guessed it – bison sandwich. Content and sleepy, we find a shady spot along the beach, beneath a tall shadow-casting rock wall and lie down. Within moments Riley and I are covered in sand and asleep. We wake up an hour or so later to the day appearing even more beautiful than before. Crystals shimmer atop the ocean as the sun’s rays reflect over the aqua blue water. Merely a handful of people parade the island today, casting the illusion of privacy. As we walk from our nap-spot towards the rest restaurant bar we encounter another fox; this time a baby. This adorable undomesticated puppy is less than 12 inches in length.

Still in relax-mode, Riley orders a piña colada and we recline on a bench by the volleyball court. A few minutes later, 4 guys and 2 girls, appearing slightly older than us, occupy the volleyball court and begin punching a volleyball around. “You guys want to play?” they ask us. We decline the invite. 30 minutes later one of the guys puts the volleyball away and pulls 8 large green and red bocce balls and a smaller, white “pallino” ball out of his backpack. “We need two more. Want to play?” they shout at us again.

“Sure,” we reply. For the next two hours the 8 of us joke, laugh and toss large balls at a smaller ball. We play two full games up to 11 and while Riley and I take last place the first time around, we win the 2nd game on an improbable sequence of throws in which we knock away all our opponents’ balls and end up with both our balls resting against the pallino.

Hungry again, we ruffle through our backpacks seeing what food we have left. Peanut butter sandwiches, teriyaki jerky and trail mix make up our dinner tonight. With the sun setting and the night air cooling, we head inside the restaurant to slurp on some warm soup and nibble on complimentary bread rolls while we await our ship to arrive and take us back to the mainland. In typical island time, the ship arrives 2 hours late. All aboard, and we’re off. Arriving back in the industrial land of San Pedro at midnight, Riley and I lazily shuffle over to our awaiting vehicle and begin the drive to our next destination.

Advertisements

Bon Voyage: A Magical 10 Day Trip Through France

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the international terminal. My Delta flight from San Diego to LAX is on time and so am I, for a change. Once my back hits the navy blue passenger seat my eyes instantly close and my mind drifts off into Lala Land.

The wheels hit the ground marking our arrival. Damn, that felt like we were in the air for 23 minutes. That’s because we really were in the air for 23 minutes. The shortest flight I’ve ever been on.

The flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport is a bit longer. 11 hours to be exact. In the meanwhile I sleep, read, watch the incredible cinematic spectacle known as Birdman and write my blog. I also make friends with my neighbor to the right, a woman in her 40s traveling to Morocco with her father, and my neighbor to the left, an older woman with dyed black hair anxious to explore Paris for her first time. In line for the bathroom a young German girl, bright eyed and bushy tailed, talks my ear off about her first time being in America. “I never thought I would want to be in America, but now I never want to leave,” she says. For dinner I order chicken. Big mistake. As someone who has frequented his fair share of McDonalds’s, Burger King’s and Salsita’s (see entry, “Everything is Bigger in Texas”) in my 25.9 years of life, I’ve consumed a hefty amount of meats that more resemble chemically injected tire than edible foods. Nonetheless, this “chicken” may take the cake for food that isn’t really food. First of all it’s gray. Maybe this was a byproduct of being trapped inside an airtight airplane tray for God knows how long, but nonetheless it’s gray. Secondly, it’s the shape of the tray. I don’t know if it always was, or whether it expanded while being heated, but the chicken was literally a rectangle. I poke the blob of meat and it jiggles like gelatin. Some sort of brown sauce lingers in one corner of the container, seemingly not having spread proportionately. My best description of the food’s scent is aluminum, plastic and something sweet. Too hungry not to eat, I take my first bight. It’s slimy and it’s chewy but it has probably been processed too many times to contain anything harmful. I finish the meal and go back to sleep. I dream about junkyard tires.

The plane touches down and the doors open. For the first time in my life, I step foot in France. Now I must find my parents. Thanks to T-Mobile’s Global Data plan, communicating over a mobile device while abroad is as simple as domestic communication. Unlimited free text and data plus $0.20/minute phone calls. I call my father and identify his location. Thirty minutes later I spot my parents in the train station. I smile as I watch my dad anxiously look down at his cell phone, wondering why I haven’t answered his texts for the past 10 minutes, and mouth the words “Ну, где он? (Well, where is he?)” My dad turns and spots my wide grin. The side of his mouth curls into a half smile. We embrace and say a few not-so-kind things to each other, in typical father-son style. Despite having seen my parents just over two weeks ago, the feeling of being back in the presence of the two beings that gave me life is no less rewarding

30€ poorer, the three of us stand on a mostly abandoned train heading towards Javal station. 10 minutes into our transition we switch to a metro train. We exit the metro and lug our bags towards Port de Javal Bas where the Amadeus Diamonds awaits our arrival. A ship, significantly smaller than your typical ocean cruise line, rests in the calm water of the Seine (pronounced “Sehn”) River. A green walkway leads us from the concrete sidewalk to the carpeted cruise floor. We check in and receive our keys. While my parents share two twin beds pushed together in Room 226, I get room 228 all to myself, thanks to my little brother having to cancel his trip to France due to the high school state finals in tennis. I drop my bags and plop on the bed to read. I’m going to stay up until nighttime so I don’t get jet…, I fall asleep before I can finish my thought.

Tonight is the Captain’s dinner. 147 individuals fill the dining room consisting of about 30 tables. The right side of the room is occupied by Germans while the left by Americans (and an Australian couple). My parents and I locate a table near the back of the room and sit down. Atop the bleach white tablecloth rest plates, silverware, napkins and a menu. The menu is broken up into 5 sections: a cold appetizer (“entrée”), a hot appetizer (also an “entrée”), a snack, the main course (a “plate”) and dessert, in that order. While I scan the menu a young, black couple asks if they can join us at our table. Robert (pronounced “Ro’-bear”) and Regina are from Denver, CO and have chosen to celebrate their anniversary on this river cruise.

The 5 of us take turns dictating our orders to Julian, our waiter from Romania. With a pudge belly, a shiny bald head and an endless supply of wise cracks, I feel an instant affinity towards this man.

While 5 courses may sound intimidating, upon seeing our first dish I begin to wonder whether 5 courses is enough. A salmon and salad dish is what I ordered and what I receive are four 1-centimeter-in-diameter semi spheres of ground salmon surrounding one lettuce leaf. I down the dish, wondering whether my body gained or lost weight after eating this meal.

In between our teeny portions of food, my family and our table guests discuss a wide array of topics, from travel and food to economy and politics (yes, I know you’re not supposed to discuss politics at dinner, but hey, it happens). Robert and Regina seem to have traveled the entire world. This is quite possibly a literal statement. Of the 20 or so countries we bring up in conversation, the couple has been to every one: Russia, South Africa, Spain, Italy, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. The list goes on and on. For an occupation Regina works for a marketing company and Robert is a project manager, but from the sound of our conversation, you’d think they spend all day reading the newspaper front to back. Whether discussing the Stalin’s rule of Russia in the 20s, 30s and 40s, the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg or the fluctuations of the Euro over the past century, the couple has a ton of information and opinion to contribute.

Of applicable topic, we discuss the European form of dining. “They treat eating as an experience here,” Regina says. “When Europeans sit down to eat they truly savor every moment. Whether with company or on their own, Europeans consume multiple courses and take the time to enjoy every bite. They don’t watch TV or sit in front of the computer; they simply sit at a table, grab a glass of wine, and allocate a couple hours of their evening to enjoying food.” This statement obviously doesn’t apply to all Europeans, as is evidenced by the group of kids I saw earlier in the day mindlessly eating fries at a McDonalds with their noses buried in their cellphones, but it’s still an interesting concept. I can only speak for myself, but more often than not, I do 10 million things while eating. Whether it’s watching ESPN, skimming the newsfeed on Facebook or texting, I seem to do everything possible to dull out the meal itself. I make a promise to myself to attempt to eat more mindfully going forward.

I won’t go into detail about every course we eat but I will say that they are all delicious. And after desert, we load up our plates with a variety of cheeses and crackers and fill our cups with coffee and tea. From start to finish dinner last 3 hours. But feels a lot shorter. I head to my room and am soon asleep.

I wake up to our boat docked in a new location. We are in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a small commune in North-Central France. This town, with a population barely half as large as that of my college, can be explored in a few hours. The weather is cool and sunny and my parents and I take off on a walk along the cobblestone streets. Not a half block to the left of our ship is a market. Kiosks full of fruits, vegetables, meats, desserts and negotiating customers line a block along the coast of the river. For a tiny market in a tiny town I am blown away by the quantity and variety of meats sold here. Shrimp ranging from an inch to a foot in size, every part of a cow, from its tongue to its kidney, rabbit, lobster and crab. Certain that it’s long dead, I tap a crab atop it’s shell. It’s eyes shift from side to side and it’s claws make sharp, small maneuvers. I jump back in shock. My mom and dad can’t hold back their laughter.

We walk for two hours or so and then another hour after lunch. The typically European cobblestone streets are barely wide enough to fit a pair of bicycles, let alone a vehicle. The cars are tiny, with the brands Peugeot, Renault and Citroen making up the bulk. We ascend the hill leading to the apex of the town and towards a large cathedral. Upon opening the doors and entering the cathedral grounds we realize we’ve just crashed a Muslim wedding. Aside from a few glances, the attendees don’t seem to mind our presence. We soon leave and walk to a wall along the hill’s edge providing a panoramic view of the entire town. Not far below I spot our cruise director and a handful of adventurous tourists making their way through a secret passageway. Not long after I lead my parents down the same route.

I wake up the next morning to another new location. This time we are in Rouen (pronounced “Ruw ah”). My parents and I enjoy some breakfast in the dining room before commencing our 9 a.m. guided tour. We walk along streets and through alleys containing homes dating back to the 17th century. What’s most impressive about these homes is they aren’t made of durable rock, they’re made of wood. Oakwood, to be specific. To make the Oakwood more durable, inhabitants would soak the timbers in the ocean for 7 years and then dry the wood for 7 years before building with it. 14 years later, construction could begin. Another interesting facet of these homes is they are significantly larger on the 2nd and subsequent floors compared to the ground floor. Why? Because back when they were built, owners paid taxes on the surface area of the plot of land. So after building a tiny first floor, they would gradually increase the size of each subsequent floor. The result is an optical spectacle of multi-story, overlapping, leaning houses.

As we wander towards the main square the guide points out that the cobblestone roads are taller on the sides than in the middle. The reason for this is twofold. The first reason has to do with the nonexistence of a toilet at the time. Residents of Rouen (and various other towns) during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries would toss their waste out of windows and into the streets (of course they would first have to yell “Guardez l’eau!” to inform all passerby’s of the oncoming wad of crap (pun intended)). And in case you were wondering – yes, that expression did, in fact, popularize the modern day term for toilet, “loo.” To maintain the filth and the stench residents used a combination of nature and pigs. They let pigs rummage the streets and consume the waste while the rains would take care of any remnants. The second reason the streets were taller on the sides was because that is where the kings would walk. As such, they would appear taller and “of a higher class” than the rest of the town’s residents. If a mere citizen happened to cross the path of a king, he would have to step down into the middle of the street while the king continued walking on the side.

Our last stop in Rouen is at the memorial of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc, a peasant girl living in medieval France, believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its long-running war with England. With no military training, Joan convinced the embattled crown prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where it achieved a momentous victory over the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. After seeing the prince crowned King Charles VII, Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake (which has been since replaced by this memorial) in 1431, at the age of 19.

Sunday morning I wake up to yet another new city. This time we are in Caudebec-en-Caux. Our morning tour takes us to Etretat, a commune along the English Channel. The weather is much colder today and the ocean breeze only makes matters worse. Our group, cuddling to retain warmth, listens to the history of this town. To me, I’m more entranced by the beauty here than the history. To the left is a hill leading to a massive cliff with a striking resemblance to an elephant drinking water from the ocean and to the right is an equally massive hill leading to an equally beautiful view.

While the hike to the “elephant cliff,” as I’m dubbing it, is more challenging, my parents and I decide to undertake it. Shivering in our boots, we ascend quickly, only stopping to take scenic photographs. I cause my mom’s heart to skip a few beats as I climb atop rocks and stand on ledges “only idiots” would stand on. We make it to the top before rushing down to ensure we make it back before the bus leaves. Arriving a few minutes early, my dad and I meander through a local fish shop, with me careful not to touch any crustaceans.

After lunch we have another tour. This time to Honfleur; home to a scenic harbor in the center of the city, an ageless wooden church and 12th Century chateau ruins. Our guide leads us into the Basilica of St. Thérèse, dedicated to St. Theresa. Photos of this wondrous girl rest along every wall. As the story goes, St. Theresa had an energy unlike anyone. She also had the ability to cure many incurable illnesses. 100 years after her death, the ill still pray to her to cure them. Our guide tells us a personal story in which she also prayed to St. Theresa and a miracle happened.

After dinner I head to my room and chat online with Riley. With a 9 hour time difference between San Diego and France I’m only able to speak with my girlfriend for the few hours between dinner and bedtime. Tonight we do a fair bit of catching up. The responsible girl she is, Riley’s been working every day. And with me not distracting her all the time, she’s been wildly productive in purchasing health insurance from the exchange (since she turned 26 this month and will no longer be covered by her family’s plan beginning in May), applying for tutoring jobs in our next location and coordinating her babysitting gig which is set to begin in a few weeks. This is the first time I’ve been apart from Riley for more than a few days since we started this trip together, and I dearly miss her. But as they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Monday morning we’re ported in the same spot as the day before. While the majority of the group leaves for the optional tour to Normandy Beach (think: D-Day), my parents and I decide to have a lazy-day and stay back on the cruise. Our physical activity today consists of my dad and I playing shuffleboard on the deck (this is my dad’s first time ever playing) and my parents and I going on a short stroll through the small town. To put in perspective how small this town truly is, in the 2 hours we walked every inch of Caudebec-en-Caux, we ran into the same man 5 times.

At 5 p.m. every day, anyone interested is invited for coffee, tea, sandwiches and dessert in the panorama room, where servers stand patiently behind the bar and a man in a suit plays classics on the piano. Feeling jocular, I decide to play a prank on my dad today. While he stands up to get some coffee, I take the black olive off my salmon sandwich and bury it into the middle of his vanilla pastry. I carefully compress the surrounding cake to conceal the tiny black ball. He returns to his seat unknowing. Attempting my hardest to avoid laughing I bring up casual topics like our remaining itinerary and how my little brother is doing back home. Waiting for my dad to begin eating his pastry is torture, as he prefers to casually eat his sandwich and sip his coffee. Finally, he takes the first forkful. I turn away, trying my hardest not to laugh. He takes another forkful, still not having gotten hold of his little surprise. I close my eyes and look down at the floor. He takes a 3rd forkful, this time unwedging the olive from its temporary home. It rolls onto the plate. I burst out laughing to the point of streaming tears. My dad stares at me wide-eyed, waiting for me to explain myself. But I can’t. “You need to fix this problem,” he says, still oblivious to my prank. Shaking his head in non-understanding he forks another chunk of cake, this time taking the olive for a ride. I turn to stare at my dad as he scrunches his face in disgust. His face remains in that form until he breaks out into the longest, heaviest laugh I’ve seen in years. For the next three minutes we cannot stop laughing. For sure, the fellow passengers on this cruise ship are convinced we spiked our coffees with vodka. “Those damn Russians.” Once calm enough to speak my dad looks at me and says “If you were 13, I’d understand. But you’re nearly 26 years old, Misha.”

I wake up early on Tuesday, knowing I have to be on the tour bus by 8:30 a.m. The drive to Giverny is storybook like (well, at least the parts I see in between naps). We pass fantastic fields of animals, gorgeous gardens with blooming spring flowers and endless rows of pink-flowered apple trees. Our pint-sized tour guide, maintaining a hilarious high-pitched French accent, utters the words “ooh-la-la” and “ya,” more times in a 5 hour stretch than I have heard in my entire life. But she makes up for it as her tales are captivating and her knowledge is expansive. She takes particular joy in morbid stories, such as that of the 2 men who were having an affair with the prince’s wives and were thus tied to horses, urinated on for days while being starved, then castrated, skinned alive and hung from a tree. “How crazy, ya?” she says upon finishing her recollection with a smile.

Giverny is where Claude Monet lived and painted for the final 43 years of his life. His 5 bedroom home is a spectacle in itself, but his garden is out of this world. The scene for many of his most famous work, including countless bridge paintings and the world renowned water lilies series, this garden contains rows upon rows upon rows of exotic flowers of all shapes, colors and sizes. Foot and a half tall yellow and red tulips, full beds of remarkable red roses, passionate purple Aubrietas and gorgeous white irises trees fill this massive plot of land. We cross the bridge, represented in countless masterful works of art, and near the water lilies. How tranquil it must have been to live here.

No one enjoys this gander through the gardens more than my mom, an aficionado of flowers. The smile never leaves her face as we quietly stroll through this rainbow of color. Using me for my photography skills, she has me snap pictures on her phone of the countless florae dispersed here.

Foregoing the second tour of the day to Versailles, we stay on the boat as it takes off back to Paris. My dad and I sit atop the deck and watch as we approach a dam and are subsequently entrapped inside a lock which fills up with water before allowing us to continue our journey, now 10 feet taller. We then play another round of shuffleboard, which is won by my dad. Old man’s still got it.

At dinner, we eat our usual 4-5 course meal with our new Russian friends, Valerie and Irena. We met them on our second night on the cruise and have been eating all our meals with them since. The couple, appearing in their late 40’s to early 50’s have actually been married for 40 years. Originally from Odessa, Ukraine, they moved to Brooklyn, NY around the same time as my family. They now own a house in Brooklyn and seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Tonight’s conversation is mostly dictated by my mom and Irena, as they discuss TV shows and Russian books. After dinner I finalize Riley and my move out inspection (taking place the day after I return, on April 26) and our move out date (April 30).

On Wednesday morning we are docked in Paris. The trip has come full circle. We rush breakfast in fear of missing the 8:30 a.m. bus tour. My parents and I stand outside the bus confused why only Germans surround us. Turns out our tour doesn’t begin until 9 a.m.

In the few hours we have before lunch, the bus driver cruises through Paris, while the fast-speaking tour guide describes our surroundings. If you’ve been wondering when I was going to mention all those places you generally associate with Paris, the answer is now. We drive past the French Parliament, cruise beside the Louvre (a whopping half-marathon’s worth of hallways and containing 30,000 paintings on exhibition and another 270,000 in the basement) and park beside the Luxembourg Gardens. We then drive over to Trocadero square where we observe the gorgeous Hôtel National des Invalides and the, you guessed it, Eiffel Tower. Built in 1889 for the world fair and the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower is truly a magnificent work of art and architecture. Parting from our tour group in order to do our own exploration of Paris, my parents and I walk beneath this 986 foot tall structure. As much as I’d love to ascend the 3,720 steps to the second (of 3) levels and then ride the elevator to the top, I know that this will consume the entire day and we won’t get to see anything else. As such, we merely walk through the evergreen fields of the Champ de Mars and onto the artificial island of Île aux Cygnes, containing the 1/3 in size replica of the Statue of Liberty, before returning to the ship. After lunch my parents and I walk to the L’Orangerie museum, highlighted by two galleries containing the eight tranquil paintings of Monet’s large-format waterlily series. If lined up side by side, the works would measure 91 meters, or 298.5 feet, in width. They are also conceived so that the four in one gallery represent sunrise, and the four in the other evoke dusk.

The day is capped off with a delightful 5 course Captain’s dinner, an introduction to the wonderful men and women that make our dining experience possible (the kitchen crew) and a few meaningful words from the ship director. The Baked Alaska dessert is the perfect topping to a delightful meal.

At 9 a.m. the next morning we depart the ship for our final time. Despite not refunding us for my brother’s cancelled reservation or allowing us to switch out his reservation to another name, Gate 1 (the company through which we purchased our reservations) and Amadeus Diamond were a class act. Everything from the food to the service was sincerely enjoyable.

A few metro transfers later we arrive at Saint-Mandé Station. A 20 minute walk later we arrive at Building # 23, home to Yafa. Yafa is a woman we contacted through AirBNB. While our original plan was to stay in her second flat in the center of Paris, her boiler exploded. However, she was kind enough to lend us her main unit in Saint-Mandé while she left town for a personal matter. The flat is everything we need. 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and a living room. WiFi and a functioning boiler is included.

After unloading our belongings, we head back to the center of Paris to meet with a tour guide we hired through recommendation. Her name is Zhenya and she is originally from Moscow, Russia, like us. We start our tour with a tasty peasant-style lunch at Lyon Café, where I get to try foie gras for my first time. For those who don’t have a weak stomach, foie gras is the overfattened liver of a goose. To create this delicacy, a goose’s liver is force fed with food until it becomes excessively large. The goose is then killed and it’s liver is fed to the French. This sadistic ritual results in this fat and cholesterol rich food I consume today. The rest of our afternoon is spent on our feet.  Our first stop is the Saint Chapelle, where Zhenya attempts to bypass the long line awaiting entrance by stating she is a tour guide. In return for her efforts she is reamed out by the woman working the ticket booth, loud enough for the last person in line to hear. After a few impolite things said (which I won’t disclose in this blog) between these two alpha females, we get back in line and eventually enter the cathedral (but not before the ticket lady told Zhenya she will not sell her tickets until Zhenya apologizes). What stands out most about this 13th century building are the stained glass windows on the second floor. These intricately designed pieces of art are the most extensive in-situ collections of 13th-century stained glass anywhere in the world. The blues, yellows, greens, oranges, reds and purples illuminate as the clear-skied sun shines through the glass. The 4 of us then stroll through Ile de Cite en route to the Notre Dame. Emphasis, on “the” as this is the world famous Notre Dame, built in the 13th century. Not one of the umpteen other Notre Dame’s we’ve seen on this trip. The cathedral lives up to the hype, from both the exterior and the interior. 315 foot tall gothic structures encompass this massive form or architecture. It took 185 years to fully complete this structure, and the result is truly awe-inspiring. We also wander through the Latin Quarter, home to the world famous Sorbonne University (University of Paris). In the center square countless students rummage through textbooks in notebooks while sipping on coffee and nibbling on pastries at the Café’s. Unlike my experience at the University of Florida, rather than locking yourself in the silence of your room or the library, students here prefer the jibber jabber of the many cafes dispersed throughout Paris.

As we cross one of the many bridges from which tons and tons of locks (yes, like the cheesy scenes in love movies), a boy on a scooter (not unlike the Razor scooters we rode as kids) scoots by me. This is another unique aspect I’ve noticed of France. These scooters are everywhere. Children and adults alike, cruise around town in these L-shaped chunks of metal as if it’s the greatest invention on earth. And with the narrow streets and heavy traffic, they may be the greatest invention here.

At 6 p.m. we depart from our host and catch a taxi towards Avenue George V, home to the famous Crazy Horse show. Before entering the theater we sit down for dinner at a nice looking restaurant. We order escargot, duck and salmon. Despite the concept of eating snails sounding rather nasty, the pesto and olive oil drenched delicacy is absolutely delightful.

Not to say I’m overly experienced in erotic shows, but Crazy Horse is by far the most sexual thing I have ever witnessed. I won’t get into detail, plus I’d rather you see it for yourself, but all I’ll say is you will be hard-pressed to find any sign of clothes, at any time, on the performers. I also wouldn’t say this is the ideal show to watch with your mom and dad, but if it’s not awkward for you then be my guest.

By the time we arrive home it’s nearly midnight. I undress and plop down on the bed belonging to a child. With my feet hanging off the edge, and surrounded by Spider Man toys, I fall asleep.

I wake up Friday to our final day in France. My mom is sad, as she always is at the end of vacations. Today’s itinerary consists of the D’Orsay museum. While this 5 story, former train station has a plethora of visually stimulating pieces, I am most overjoyed by the 5th floor, containing Impressionist work from the likes of Claude Monet, Eduard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Renault and Pablo Piccasso. Three to four hours and a sub-par café lunch later we exit the museum and continue our exploration of Paris. Our next stop is Montmarte, home to the stunning Basilique du Sacre-Cœur. We ascend the 270 steps to the structure and walk through impressive interior. We then walk through the overcrowded-with-tourists streets of Place du Tertre until locating a pastry shop. My mom has been waiting for this moment since, well, probably since before she even arrived to France. Paris is renowned for their pastries and my mom has been aspiring to purchase and munch on one of those little pies with berries and glaze on top. We purchase 3 goodies – a slice of pear pie, a chocolate éclair and a slice of raspberry pie. We sit on a typically tiny French table and ingest more unneeded sugar. Since arriving in France, I’ve been eating desserts 3 times a day. Like clockwork, I have a sweet every lunch, pastry hour (see olive in the cake story above) and dinner. If I’m feeling really rowdy I’ll even have one of those chocolates the cleaning lady leaves on my pillow before bed. That’s an absurd amount of sugar but I’m in France; I can’t help it.

After this tasty break, we stroll along Rue Lepic, where we encounter the homes of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, before entering Boulevarde de Clichy (the red-light district). Here we have shop after shop of sex stores and club after club of strippers. We pass a 6 story Sexodrome. Speaking of sex, one thing I would like to talk about is the P.D.A. (Public Displays of Affection) in France. Like the stereotypes suggest, there’s plenty of it. At bus stops, museums, restaurants or merely in the middle of the street – couples are constantly sucking face for the world to see.

After getting offered hashish and cocaine and kindly declining, I continue walking with my parents in search of a restaurant. Along the border of the gay district we find one. We order duck filets and lamb. A wonderful last dinner in Paris. The only thing missing are frog legs.

An hour later I’m hungry again and I order a crepe with chicken, cheese and tomatoes in the Jewish district. This tasty goodness is prepared right before my eyes. Meanwhile, my parents, seemingly wanting to avoid a sugar crash, order another raspberry and strawberry pie at the local pastry shop.

We walk a bit farther until reaching the Bastille metro station. Before descending into the underground world of metro trains we take a second to admire the Place de la Bastille (the center square). Many years ago this city housed one of the most prominent prisons in the world.

I wake up Saturday morning feeling well-rested but unsettled. This wonderful trip has come to an end. I spent 10 wonderful days with my family and once I walk out Yafa’s front door, I likely won’t see my mom or my dad for months. My sadness is mitigated by the thought of Riley. In less than 24 hours she’ll be waiting for me at the San Diego Airport terminal.

I shower and join my parents at the breakfast table. An omelet, fruits and yogurt. It’s a few minutes till 10 a.m. and I turn to look at my mom. The corners of her lips curl downward and her eyes take on the form of a sad puppy’s; a face I’ve seen her make at the end of many a family vacation. “I don’t want this vacation to end,” she says.

A slight pang of guilt fills me as I realize my parents go back to work in two days while I go back to traveling. I stand up and hug and kiss each of my parents. Bon voyage.

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the terminal exit, where Riley awaits me.

Happy Birthday to Me. Come on Down.

It feels like the days of old – when I was a teacher and Spring Break arrived. No babysitting, tutoring or teaching this week, just play and birthday celebrations.

It’s Saturday morning and my bags are packed for Temecula, a city an hour north of San Diego. Ainsley, Courtney, Patrick, Shane and I pile into Pat’s pickup truck and head north. Courtney, my teacher friend from Dunwoody Springs, is in town visiting her sister, Ainsley. In fact, Courtney is the reasons Ainsley and I met. And how thankful I am to her, as Ainsley has become my best friend in San Diego.

Today we are honoring Courtney’s arrival by going to the “Napa Valley” of Southern California. The large plots of land and spacious houses are a drastic change from North Park, where people practically live on top of each other. Ponte Winery (or as I heard it, “Poncho” Winery) is the first stop. Rose bushes, adequately watered grass and a lavish lake make Ponte the perfect venue for wine and fancy events. We each purchase tickets good for 6 samples of wine and select our first beverage. We then step outside to sip our drinks amid the spectacular landscape. Walking into the vineyard, we are pleased to find ourselves the only occupants of this area. We walk among the rows and rows of grapes, chatting about useless things and snapping photos.

On to the next winery – Wilson’s Creek. This location is even more stunning than the previous. The boys play bocce ball while the girls sit on the soft grass beneath a shadow-casting tree. Between the effects of the succulent wine and Courtney’s dry sense of humor, I find myself in tears with laughter.

All that wine makes us hungry, so we head to Public House, a restaurant in the town’s old-western style downtown. Between Pat’s family and our group of friends, we occupy the entirety of this massive, circular stone table. Hamburgers, sandwiches, salads and fries satisfy our tummies.

That night we relax and watch and the epic March Madness Semi-Final between Wisconsin and Kentucky. Well, not ALL of us watch – by half time Courtney, Ainsley and I are merrily snoring away. The boys seem to enjoy the game though. After a late night snack Misha and I head over to the guest house, which was graciously offered to us by Pat’s parents. We lay down and are soon staring at the backs of our eyelids.

Packed again, Misha and I are ready for another trip to L.A. Holding back the tears, I say goodbye to Courtney, unsure when I will see her again.

Seat belts on and hungry, Misha and I drive straight to Chinatown. We park and bee-line past the Chinese lanterns, cheap souvenirs and pet shops straight to Yang Chow restaurant. After our ungratifying experience in Chinatown – San Francisco, these dumplings, wonton soup, rice, green tea and sesame chicken far exceed my expectations.

With a few hours remaining before the arrival of my mom and her best friend, Vivian, Misha and I head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). You may know this museum by the famous lamp posts constructed on its premises. While I’m not a connoisseur of art, I do find some of the contemporary works by Andy Warhol and his peers quite fascinating. To my pleasant surprise, I stumble upon a painting by my grandfather’s first cousin, Jasper Johns. Among the many buildings and hallways present here, Misha and I view exhibitions entailing German Horror Films, Faces of America and Tibetan Pottery.

As we pull into the arrivals terminal at LAX I think to myself how fortunate I am to have my mom fly over 2,000 miles to visit me…twice in two months. While I love San Diego, I do get homesick – and seeing my mom this often mitigates the sentiment. I am also looking forward to seeing Vivian. When my mom and Vivian get together, you never know what’s going to happen. One thing is guaranteed – things will get interesting.

LAX is not my favorite airport. I’ve had poor experiences here before and seeing the chaos unfolding here now isn’t doing much to change my mind. The traffic here is worse than Atlanta rush hour. People flock across the street, disregarding all signs and rules. Moody cops do little to control the situation other than yell at unsuspecting drivers (including one cop who called Misha an “idiot” for putting on his blinker and attempting to switch lanes). It’s an hour after their flight was supposed to arrive, yet neither my mom nor Vivian have received their baggage. Once again, welcome to L.A.

Tonight we have a late dinner. It’s after 11p.m. when we’re handed our menus. Despite it nearly being the next day, Bossa Nova Brazilian Restaurant is packed. This reminds me of the late nights I had in Rio de Janeiro, when my friends and I wouldn’t even begin getting ready for the disco until midnight.

The table next to us hosts two couples. Stylish haircuts, leather jackets, designer skinny jeans and high-rise sneakers make up their appearance. These kids, possibly a decade younger than me, speak in a nearly indistinguishable music-industry-esque accent, indigenous to Los Angeles. Misha and I heard similar speech from some of Josh’s peers last time we were here (see entry “The Final Leg”).

Feasting in a Brazilian restaurants reminds my mom and me of my brother, Pierce, who is currently teaching English to schoolchildren in Brazil. Pierce and I often discuss how genuine and friendly Brazilians are. Our waiter reinforces this opinion. He is almost too eager, with smiles and attentiveness, to make sure we are having an incredible experience at his restaurant. He even gives us a completely flan dessert for my approaching birthday (at midnight).

While brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed at the Comfort Inn, Misha escapes outside stating he left his toothbrush in the car. Moments later he knocks on the door, marking his return. In his hands he doesn’t hold a toothbrush; rather, he holds a large rectangular shape covered in wrapping paper. It’s past midnight, meaning I’m unofficially 26 years old. Feeling a mix of emotion and curiosity I clumsily rip apart the wrapping paper to discover a canvas upon which an image is drawn. Two faces, painted black and white with the exception of blue eyes and red lips, stare at each other affectionately. One is a man while the other is a woman. Between them is a wooden heart covered in pink construction paper and split into quadrants. The characters clearly represent Misha and me. I can’t help but crack up at the image of Misha’s blood-red, voluptuous lips, and perfectly chiseled face, making him appear a bit homosexual. While the painting is nice, the true gift lies within the heart (no pun intended). My job is to peel off a quadrant of the heart, revealing the name of a restaurant. Misha will then treat me to a meal at that restaurant. I then peel off the next quadrant and repeat the process until all 4 quadrants have resulted in tasty meals for us. This is a very thoughtful gift as I have often preached to Misha how I regret not having taken advantage of San Diego’s vibrant food scene. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.

Not having slept nearly enough to function, Misha and I leave bright and early to pick up my mom and Vivian from the Lowles Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. No one loves seeing celebrities quite like my mom. And in not-surprising fashion, she finagles her way into obtaining free studio tickets to see The Price is Right, Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil.

Misha and I drop my mom and Vivian off at Ellen before heading to The Price is Right. We stand in a long line only to find out that the morning episode is “16 year olds” and that we can’t get in. While Misha and my mom (via text) attempt to convince me to tie my hair in pig tails and feign being 16, I highly doubt I will appear a decade younger than my sincere age.

Turns out, my mom and Vivian arrived way too early for Ellen. So they grab an Uber and head our way. With time to kill, we cross the street to a farm-to-table restaurant and order eggs and mimosas. Bottomless mimosas, that is. The plan is to eat and drink and then head back to The Price is Right, in attempt to get onto the 12:30 p.m. episode – themed “Teachers.” Fittingly, I’m a teacher. Even Misha qualifies, since he’s technically a substitute teacher (despite him never having actually stepped foot into a classroom).

After a long wait, we are let in through the gates. Woohoo. We are first seated on bleachers in a large room resembling a storage garage. For the next hour or so, we sign waivers, receive name tags and have our photos taken (which will later cost us $40 a piece if we want to buy them). All the while, the 298 people surrounding us scream endlessly and jump for joy in attempt to be noticed. After all, only a handful will “Come on down.” Despite the mimosas, the atmosphere is a bit too enthusiastic for me.

About twenty of us are ushered into the next waiting area where casting directors select random people and ask them questions. Misha and I are both selected. I am asked two questions by the casting director and I intentionally give bland responses to avoid getting selected. Misha, on the other hand, is asked 3 questions. He jumps and pounds his fist with (what I believe to be fake) excitement.

We are escorted to yet another waiting area. This time we stand outside for about an hour before being guided into another room with more bleachers, TVs and excessive amounts of cheering. While waiting and munching on our overpriced quesadilla, Misha and I examine the self-made t-shirts and make guesses on which contestants will get called down.

After a combined 5 hours of waiting we are finally let inside the studio. Somehow Misha and I land front row seats and are right by the camera (hopefully, this means you’ll be seeing plenty of our faces on the September 8 airing of the episode). The show progresses mostly as expected. Certain audience members get called down while other cheer and applaud on command. After a few minutes my cheeks and hands begin to hurt from all the smiling and clapping. During commercial breaks Drew Carrey (host of the show) chats with the audience. To my surprise, he has a very dry and, dare I say, vulgar sense of humor. Some of the words that come out of this family-TV-person’s mouth truly surprise me (and outright offend a few of the unsuspecting teachers in the audience).

It’s after 6 p.m. when we finally get out. We need to be at my birthday dinner with my mom, Vivian, Beegie and her friend in negative 15 minutes. We rush to our car and head to Spago, an elite, celebrity-infested L.A. restaurant offering Wolfgang Puck’s luxurious menu and sleek decor. After valeting our car we rush inside to 3 familiar faces and Mike, Beegie’s friend and celebrity dogwalker, sipping on martinis. Before introductions are over, Mike orders me a lychee martini and informs me that, ironically, Drew Carrey is one of his clients. He modestly names a few other stars’ dogs he walks while sipping his Belvedere.

Eyeing the food choices presented on this 3-course menu, I salivate over the impending meal. Oysters, lobster pasta, cous cous and scallops are the first to arrive. Then the veal, seabass, meatballs and salmon show up. Dish after dish appear and soon disappear, as we indulge in these delicacies. Between the talk, the drink and the eating we manage to spend over 4 hours seated at this round table. The experience ends perfectly with the most delicious dessert I have ever witnessed. Just writing about it makes me melt with desire. This chocolate brownie is prepared from scratch in the kitchen and is immediately inserted into an air tight bag. The bag is only sliced open once it arrives at our table, emitting a mouthwatering fragrance which wafts 3 tables over. We cannot remove our eyes from the brown spectacle. Ice cream is placed beside the brownie. We all dig in simultaneously. And within an instant, the finest dessert known to man is consumed.

In the morning we are guided by Beegie on a hike to the Hollywood sign. Misha and I admire the multi-million dollar homes compressed along these sloping streets of Hollywood Hills. Beegie points out the homes occupied by celebrities, and there are many, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, Tobey Maguire, Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck and Selma Hayek. Oh, and of course, the home originally belonging to the Monkeys. My mom and Vivian spend the next 30 minutes singing Monkey’s songs I’ve never heard. After the hike, Misha takes off for home while my mom, Vivian and I head dinner.

The next day, us three ladies head to a filming of Dr. Phil. Prior to entering the studio, one of the producers hands me a yellow slip, instructing me to sit in the front row. Unbelieving of my luck of having gotten front row seats to two consecutive shows, I joyfully walk up to the front and take me seat. Soon after, my mom and Vivian enter the studio and stare jealously at me in the front. They proceed to complain to the producer about not being able to sit with me in the front row.

“Well, that yellow slip is for the entire party. She should have brought you with her,” the producer explains.

“Can we go now?” my mom inquires.

“Unfortunately, the seats are already taken,” he says.

With envy in their eyes, my mom and Vivian assume their seats in the 5th row.

The episode is about the Amish Mafia (I can disclose this information now as the episode aired last week). While the show is interesting we are more concerned whether the cameras are capturing us and whether our faces will be appearing on daytime television in a few weeks. Ironically, my mom and Vivian receive significantly more camera action than me.

That night I catch the Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles to Old Town Station in San Diego. I hop off the train and straight into the passenger seat of my Acura TSX; Misha sitting at the wheel. At home, I plop on the couch, ready to relax. Birthdays are always exhausting. Especially when traveling. And especially especially when you are constantly surrounded by family, friends and events. That being said, my 26th birthday was everything I could ask for and more.

Life Speeds Up

Once again I sit behind a desk. However, things are a bit different from my former job in Atlanta. For starters, the stress level has decreased while the exposure to natural light has increased.

There are about 8 of us here. Pat comes in at the crack of dawn every morning. No, literally. She’s usually in by 6 a.m. But she leaves by noon, which ain’t too shabby. In the office across from Pat, Susan and My (her name is actually spelt “M-Y;” not to be mistaken with the possessive form of “me”) sit, their backs facing each other. Although Susan is here today, she only comes in a few times a week. Like me, she’s a part time employee. And My leaves by 3 p.m. every day to pick up her son from school. The office catty-corner from Susan and My is occupied by Olivia, a seasoned veteran. Olivia has been here for 4 years and assumes a manager role. And she assumes it quite well, indeed. Silent palm trees and ceaseless sunshine stare through Olivia’s large office window at the mountain of files atop her desk. Across the hall sits Janet and me. They don’t come much more knowledgeable than Janet. I’m preparing my 4nd tax return and have already managed to ask Janet nearly one-hundred questions. Calmly and with a smile, she answers every single one. I’m going to learn a lot these next two months.

I have a question for Mike, the boss man. I walk out of my office and hang a right. To my left is another office. “Hi George,” I say to the stout man with a grey Beatles-era hair style.

“Hi,” George mutters back, flipping his right hand in the air and not looking up from his computer screen.

A few steps more and I reach Mike’s office. An organized desk and a computer monitor larger than any television set I’ve ever owned rest against the side wall of this office.

Mike looks up from his time sheet and asks me if I got a haircut. Before I can respond he cracks a joke. Something about me having obviously had multiple haircuts. It’s a joke I don’t understand but I laugh anyway. Mike smiles. He then stands up and extends a knuckle towards me. I pound it. Standing at least 4 inches taller than me, Mike’s presence is noticeable wherever he goes. “How’s your third day going?” he asks.

“Well,” I say. “I actually have a question for you about this return I’m working on.”

We sit and chat. Mike effortlessly answers this nagging question which seemed impossible to me mere moments ago.

Back at my desk, I check the time: 3:30 p.m. Time to head home; Riley needs the car.

This is my new gig. 4 times a week, 7 hours a day I prepare tax returns. Individuals, partnerships, corporations and trusts. I get a taste of everything. When I have questions, and I have many, I ask Janet. When I complete a return I give it to Olivia to review. I learn more about tax in a day here than I did in 2 semesters in college. Less than a week of employment and my friends are already asking me tax advice.

After work I hand the car off to Riley, who spends the evenings tutoring little Anthony and attending yoga/pilates/barre/core/a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember workout classes. Generally, we’re both home by 7, at which time we cook dinner together and maybe have a glass of wine. By 10 Riley’s asleep. And by midnight, I join her.

I don’t work Mondays. I do this intentionally so I can have the car all to myself with no obligations. A permanent 3 day weekend. It’s the final Monday in February. The weather is still cool and the sun still shines bright. I sleep in, eat a hearty breakfast, grab my black suitcase containing my drone and head outside. I drive around town filming. I get home a quarter past three and upload the footage. A couple more days like this and I should have enough for my first demo reel.

The wooden gate creeks open and slams shut. The squeak of breaks signifies Riley’s arrival from work. She walks in drenched in sweat. I give her a kiss and ask about her day.

“Good,” she says. “I took the kids to the park this morning and made a new friend. She’s from Brazil.” Riley rushes into her room, cutting the conversation short. In 15 minutes she must leave for tutoring. Feeling much less frantic than my girlfriend, I lazily slip into my sneakers and prepare a smoothie. By 4:35 we’re speeding north on interstate 805, heading towards Rancho Santa Fe. While Riley tutors, I sneak a workout at the local LA Fitness (or “Louisiana Fitness,” as Waze [my GPS] calls it).

Wednesday rolls around and Riley’s mom, Anne, and dad, Mac, fly into San Diego. Riley’s grandfather, former South Carolina Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley, is receiving an award at the 150th annual AASA (American Association of School Administrators) conference in downtown San Diego tomorrow. A perfect opportunity for a miniature family reunion.

It’s Thursday morning and by 7 a.m. Riley has already dropped me off at work. I’m back in her car by two in the afternoon. I slip into my nicest (and only) suit and a handsome tie while my girlfriend cruises through the gradually swelling southbound traffic. We arrive at the Marriott Marquis in downtown San Diego and valet our vehicle for the inexpensive price of $12/hour. Might as well park illegally again and get another $60 parking ticket, I think to myself.

I exchange pleasantries with Riley’s mom and dad. Other family members roll in and interrogate us about our travels. “How lovely,” they all say. “I’m jealous,” they reaffirm. By 3 we’re walking the quarter mile from the hotel to the convention center. While Riley and her aunts, uncles and family friends trudge behind, Mac and I walk ahead, discussing my new favorite topic – taxes. “Oh yeah, you can totally deduct that,” I tell him.

The conference hall is grandiose. Of the 4,000 people packed in here, the Smith’s, Riley’s and I sit front row. When his time to receive the award arrives, Dick Riley does so humbly and elegantly. He then produces an exquisite speech; one that a hot-rod politician in the heat of a presidential election would be envious of. Yet, Mr. Riley does this at the ripe age of 82. The host comes back on stage and announces a few more awards and makes promises for a better future. Then steps in the guest speaker – Cal Ripken Jr. Rightfully cocky, Ripken delivers a funny speech with an undertone of conceitedness. You don’t become one of the all-time greatest athletes by being modest.

At night we eat Indian food. It’s my 2nd time tasting the spicy deliciousness since my 6 month long battle with Giardia following my backpacking endeavor in India in 2013. The cleanliness of the restaurant quiets my apprehension.

I take Friday off of work to allow Riley to drive her family around town. Riley comes home around 4 p.m., giving me just enough time to say hi to my girlfriend before heading to Shabbat dinner with relatives, most of whom I’ve never met. The food is fantastic and the company is even better. Cousins, cousins and more cousins. I meet relatives ranging from barely 18 months old to nearly 90 years old. Of the 15 or so individuals feasting within this tall-ceilinged house in the hills, I’ve only met 2 – Gloria and Lee Redmon. Gloria is my grandfather’s first cousin. Lee is her husband. And everyone else attending the party is a product. As someone who is not particularly religious, it’s nice to be reminded of my Jewish roots every now and then. L’Chaim.

Saturday brunch is as good as it gets. If there’s one thing the Marriott Marquis has mastered it’s the restaurant buffet. A pair of sunny side eggs is prepared before me. I then load up my plate, and a few more, with lightly seasoned fingerling potatoes, crunchy strips of bacon, caramelized onions, perfectly browned toast with Irish butter and other morning goodies. Oh, I almost forgot the melt-in-your mouth French toast lathered in fresh chocolate chips. To cap off this breakfast of champions I have the softest pound cake in town with a cup of green tea.

After breakfast we pack the Acura with 7 friends and family members and drive back to our neighborhood. I coach tennis at the local North Park Recreational Center while Riley + Co. explore the world renowned San Diego Zoo. We cap off the night at a fine dinner at the Grant Grill with friends of Anne’s, Beegie and Bill. Men in tailored suits, speaking in foreign accents bring out tasters in shot-glass sized bowls. The table orders pricey, yet exquisitely delicious, entrees consisting of lamb, fish and complex salads. Wine pours like rain. Chatter and laughter fill the room.

Sunday marks the arrival of March and the departure of Riley’s many family members. This also marks the beginning of Riley’s cleanse. For the next month, Riley will only be able to eat, well, pretty much nothing. Vegetables are fine. Depending on how they are cooked, that is. Sugars and carbs are no-no’s. Poultry and fish are okay too. Again, depending on how they are cooked. And of course, diet-specific shakes compose a large portion of this regimen. I’m not sure what is in the shakes, but Riley seems to enjoy them.

A week passes and another one of Riley’s friends, Alana, shows up in San Diego. Along for the ride is Alana’s boyfriend, Will, who happens to be close friend with Grant, the guy I told y’all about a few entries ago. The newcomers commune with Grant and Rachel and decide to spend Saturday in Mexico. “We’re in,” we tell the quartet.

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and lathered in sunscreen I plop in the driver’s seat next to Riley, who is donning beach attire and a bubble of excitement. We head towards the border. Grant drives like a maniac and I have to dig into my inner Jason Bourne to keep up with his crossing 4 lanes at once and 70 mile per hour turns. We slide $24 cash into the drive-thru insurance window, protecting our vehicles of any damage they may endure in Mexico and make the final 2 mile drive to the border. Getting into Mexico is uneventful. A $2.10 toll and a straight-faced, uninterested police officer.

We drive 45 minutes south to Rosarito Beach. Here we are escorted by a short, plump man with a mustache and a sombrero to a beautiful spot beneath an umbrella. Stimuli surround us. A man with a wheelbarrow full of melting gummy worms and chocolates walks by us, offering his products. In the stretch of 5 minutes, 7 women and children pass our table, selling sombreros and jewelry. Miniature ponies and cayenne covered fruits are scattered all around us. A thin man with a shy smile stands stealthily in my peripheral. He moves a Sharpie pen along a white piece of multi-purpose computer paper. A hairy-chested sketch of me later, I give this man a dollar. I turn to my left and Riley is lying face down on a towel in the sand. A tanned woman, appearing in her early 40’s hovers over my girlfriend rubbing lotion onto her back. For $4 Riley receives a fine 20 minute massage. Meanwhile, a large Mexican man in a Chicago Bears jersey comes sprinting towards Will blowing a referee whistle. He then grabs Will’s head and cocks it back with his paws. In one hand he snags a tequila bottle and in the other he holds a Corona. He shakes these sun-warmed Mexican beverages and shifts the neck of each bottle towards Will’s mouth. He releases his thumbs and two yellow streams erupt in Will’s mouth. A crowd gathers as Mexicans and tourists alike, cheer Will on. A full beer and a rough-night’s worth of tequila later, Mr. Chicago Bears lifts Will from his chair and swings his 200 pound frame onto his shoulder. He spins and spins and spins before dropping Will onto his feet. I catch it all on video.

After Rosarito we drive another 45 minutes south to Porto Nuevo. We walk into what appears to be a garage but turns out to be a restaurant overlooking the Pacific. Somehow, Grant and Rachel are friendly with the owner and convince him to sell each of us a meal consisting of 3 lobsters, a margarita, a shot of tequila and unlimited fresh tortillas, rice, beans, chips and salsa for $15/person, as compared to the usual $25/person. After this fulfilling meal we walk around the little Mexican shops scoping out good deals on local tequila, cigars and jewelry. I split a handle of homemade blue agave tequila and cigars with Grant and Will while purchasing matching friendship/love bracelets with Riley.

Crossing the border back into the United States takes some time. But at least the wait is entertaining. Everything from coffee and ice cream to life-size portraits of the Virgin Mary is being sold. Riley nearly purchases a puppy, no older than a handful of days, for $5. While I am objectively against the purchase, I must agree the half-palm-sized puppy is adorable.

The security guard scans our faces and then our passports. Not seeing anything suspicious about a pasty, twenty-something year old male with unkempt hair and a Hawaiian shirt sitting beside a tiny, freckle-faced girl with a nervous smile, the short woman waves us through. We’re back in the United States. As I cruise down the now empty highway towards our home, I reflect on the past quarter year spent traveling. It’s been exactly three months since we left Atlanta and 2 months since arriving in San Diego. Our first month living in SoCal was slow. Very slow. Enjoyably slow. At least for me. No job and lots of free time to do, well, whatever I wanted. Now the second month is a different story. We had at least one guest literally every weekend. When we weren’t entertaining guests we were working. Definitely a much faster paced month than I expected. Now having experienced both extremes, I wonder what our 3rd and final month in San Diego has in store for us.

Our New Home

We follow the sidewalk running along the one way road dubbed Boundary Street for about 100 feet before veering to the right onto a dirt alley barely wide enough to fit a Mini-Cooper. Another 50 feet and we stop at a wooden fence, about a foot and a half taller than me. My body tingles with anticipation as our realtor, Cathy-Ann, fidgets with the stubborn lock as she attempts to insert a key into the heavy-duty lock securing the fence closed.

This past month of traveling has been an incredible experience, and the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect, but I’m now ready to have a place to call home. There are joys that can only be attained traveling, but a girl like me eventually needs the stability of her own bed, clean bathroom, and organized closet. Seemingly ages later, the gate swings opens. We are exposed to a short, rectangular cottage separately fenced in from a larger unit in which our landlord and his fiance reside in. immediately before us rests a round metal table and four white, cushioned chairs under a spacious cloth umbrella. Beside it, a small, leafless tree and potted plants chatter among themselves A hummingbird, half the size of my palm, sweeps past my frizzling hair. With clear blue skies and a 75 degree forecast, I already foresee many afternoons spent reading and relaxing on this veranda.

As we approach the front door I notice “Shalom” written on a decoration hanging by the front door. As we later learn, the owner of the home is both Russian and Jewish, not unlike Misha. With a little less trouble, Cathy-Ann cracks open the front door. We are welcomed by a comfortably quaint room embodied by tile floors, wooden cabinets and jubilant decorations. It only takes a few seconds to identify everything in this charming living room and kitchen. Beside the door resides a small round kitchen table covered in a flowery table cloth. Almost pressed against it is a massive stainless-steel refrigerator large enough to house 2 family’s worth of food. To the right of the fridge are granite counter tops, an oven and stove and a washer and dryer. Opposite the kitchen sleeps a petite brightly striped couch, a wooden coffee table and a modest sized television atop a wooden TV-stand.

This room has everything one would need. It’s small, but not too small. It’s the perfect size for a couple with limited possessions. Our short tour continues into the bathroom, located beside the washer/dryer. My eyes brighten as (in my opinion) the most important room in the house sparkles with beauty. The spacious, tile-floored shower bears a tile-seat and a glass door. The porcelain toilet and shiny sink fit comfortably beside it.

Cathy-Ann, Misha and I then migrate to the bedroom, located on the opposite side of the house. Again, my expectations are exceeded. A queen sized bed screaming my name, a 3 drawer IKEA-esque dresser screaming Misha’s, a tall white wardrobe for my excessive supply of dresses, and a large wooden book shelf filled with months’ worth of books and games is more than we could have asked for.

I look over and see Misha grinning at me.

“Our first home together,” he says as he walks over and embraces me in a big bear hug.

We spend the bulk of the evening unpacking, only taking a break to watch an obnoxiously vibrant red, pink and purple sunset. We then ride over to the local Trader Joe’s for some groceries. Misha and I cook a delightful steak meal and down it with some celebratory red wine. We have successfully journeyed from Atlanta, Georgia to San Diego, California. This marks the end of a wonderful chapter in our lives and the beginning of the next.

I wake up my first day in San Diego to another perfect morning. Before starting my to-do list, I decide to go on a run through our neighborhood known as North Park. We chose to live in North Park as we had been informed by many that this up-and-coming neighborhood is the hip area for young people like ourselves. I begin my run. A half mile from our cottage lies University Avenue, a street boasting the neighborhood’s downtown. This diverse area provides a plethora of cafes , restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, and microbreweries. A theatre and weekly farmer’s market also add to the variety. As I observe the countless happy youth and adults flood these eccentric streets and shops I already feel myself falling in love. There is already an overwhelming amount of things and places I’m ready to experience here.

The hours begin to fly by as Misha and I continue getting settled into our new home. Misha spends most of his time on Craigslist finding us deals on road bikes, a bike rack, impenetrable bike locks, a wine rack, and other essential items we weren’t able to squeeze into my compacted car. He also begins coordinating with potential tennis clients he’s gathered through various online and offline outlets. I spend my hours doing research on the required paperwork for substitute teaching. The process is a lot more complicated than I thought. Unlike Fulton County in Atlanta, San Diego County is divided into 42 separate districts each with unique requirements. Scheduling an appointment for fingerprints and teacher credentialing at the San Diego County Education Office is only the first step. Feeling the stress already rolling in I take a deep breath and continue on with my productivity.

Needing a break from filling out substitute teacher applications and attempting to master the art of scanning documents on our newly acquired (for $5), fresh-out-of-the-box printer, I check my email. I’m pleased to find an email from a woman I had been communicating with on http://www.care.com. She asks if I’d be interested in babysitting her 3 young children. I give her a call and after a 30 minute conversation, I am invited to come meet the kids the following Monday. Misha and I eat dinner that night with a sense of accomplishment. We both got an unprecedented amount of work accomplished today.

The Grandest of Canyons

I stand with Steve in the kitchen, an old Indian Country map spread open on his half-constructed marble countertop.

“If you take this route, you’ll be able to see the best view of the Colorado River,” Steve says, pointing to a route from Flagstaff, AZ to the Grand Canyon. “But if you go this way, you can explore the Red Mountains.”

“Which would you prefer?” I ask our adventurous host.

Steve bites his lip and caresses his soul patch with his thumb and index finger. “I really want to say you should go through the Red Mountains. They’re one of my favorite spots. But that’s the only thing you’ll see on the route. The other route has 3 or 4 really cool stopping points.”

I wait silently, allowing Steve’s inner dialogue to play out.

“Go this way,” Steve says, concluding that we should bypass the Red Mountains.

“Sounds good,” I say.

“Remember to swing by the local AAA and pick up one of these maps too.”

And that’s exactly what I do.

Two shiny, new maps in hand, Riley and I set off for Flagstaff, AZ. After two hours of cruising along the speedy interstate, we jump onto Route 66. Yes, historic Route 66 – one of the first U.S. highways, created in 1926, and originally running 2,448 miles from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA. We pass by gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels all boasting the numbers “66” in their name. After many miles of this gimmicky stretch of road, we merge back onto the quicker and more efficient interstate 40. The sun begins to set, painting the swirling clouds above us deep shades of gold, pink, blue and purple. The snow-capped mountains, seemingly forever in the distance, radiate a confident dark blue glow.

We arrive in Flagstaff shortly after 6pm. Rather than heading straight to our hotel like a boring, old couple, we decide to gander around the city’s downtown. First order of business is food. We blindly decide on Beaver Street Brewery. 3 succulent bratwursts, a fulfilling Portobello ravioli and a tasty local Pilsner later, Riley and I feel quite content. We spend the next 2 hours walking off our dinner while enjoying the many clothing and craft shops scattered throughout this quaint town. After realizing we desire every single item being sold in this town, we decide to head to the hotel.

A good night’s rest and a surprisingly diverse hotel breakfast later, we depart our Fairfield Inn for the Grand Canyon. As per Steve’s advice, we take a longer, more scenic route to this world renowned park. We approach Sunset Volcano crater, a volcanic cinder cone, covered in hardened black lava rock. The apex of this mountain is missing, as if bitten off. We then pass many hills and mountains encompassed by black sand, from which unusual vegetation grows. We continue increasing in elevation. Suddenly the picture-perfect clear day turns into an impenetrable fog. We’ve entered a cloud. Over the next 3 minutes the temperature drops from 51 degrees Fahrenheit to 31. We pass through 18 miles of Wupatki National Monument, unable to see any of it. Once again, Riley sits behind the wheel during an unexpectedly challenging drive. And once again, she impresses.

We park a short walk away from the Bright Angel trailhead. Not anticipating the snow, ice and slush covered terrain awaiting us, I wear my running shoes, having 18 months, 2 half marathons and 100’s of miles of tread on them. Riley, also wearing tennis shoes, walks a few steps behind me as I gingerly descend the slippery trail. We slip but avoid falling many times. Less than a half mile in, we pass a group of 4 fit looking men, staring fearfully at the canyon below them. “Let’s just turn around,” one of them says.

Undeterred, we continue our hike. After a mile, the ice ceases as the trail is exposed to the sun. Simultaneously, the view becomes even more stunning. An indescribable amount of space fills this trench we stand in, surrounded by rocks of various shades of red and brown. The plateau seems miles away, and in fact it is. We hike down another half mile. Mesmerized by the beauty we are witnessing, we climb atop a rock protruding farther than the others. Encased in the magnitude around me, I can’t help but think of how small I truly am.

The hike up is easier and quicker than the hike down. We pass many good-natured individuals cursing themselves for hiking as far down as they did. One boy sprints by us, slowing down only to explain that he needs to complete the trail in less than 20 minutes to prove his manhood to his father.

We drive through another gorgeous sunset towards the small town of Williams. We eat a satisfying Mexican meal at Poncho’s. Feeling refueled, we set off to our next destination.

Everything is Bigger in Texas

The sun glistens off a shiny metallic star, 10 times the size of me. We’ve officially arrived in Texas, the Lone Star state. With Austin another 4 hours away, and my overwhelming hunger making me sick, I ask Misha to pull over at the next decent restaurant. This task is more challenging than we thought. For 20 miles the only restaurant we pass is a Pizza Hut. No thanks. We see signs for the city of Beaumont. That sounds more promising. Misha reads a few reviews online, and we settle on a reasonably priced Italian restaurant. It’s closed. In fact, the entire town of Beaumont looks like it’s been closed for the past few decades. We try another place – La Salsita; authentic Mexican food. Huge Mistake. After ordering what I think was a chicken burrito, and watching the cashier hit on my boyfriend, we sit down to eat. Misha maintains a stoic face as he attempts to down the mass of food in his hands. Despite my apprehensiveness, I follow suit. Two-thirds through our burritos, we call it quits.

“We needed to eat at a place like that. So we could get it out of our system. Right?” I ask Misha, attempting to find optimism in the episode having just occurred.

“Sure,” Misha says.

With a rumbling stomach, I cautiously drive along seemingly endless, wide roads. The 80mph speed limit is a bit disconcerting for me, as I’ve never seen anything greater than 70. I guess it’s true when they say everything is bigger in Texas. Shortly after 9pm, we arrive at Chelsy and Brett’s house. Chelsy and Misha met in the summer of 2012, while Misha was backpacking Hawai’i for two months. She now lives with her boyfriend, Brett, in Cedar Park, Texas, just north of Austin.

Chelsy greets us with massive rubber boots and a wide simile. She instantly radiates a positive and free spirited vibe. With her dirty blonde hair and athletic physique, she’s not exactly the dark-haired Hawaiian I imagined her being, but I can already tell that I’m going to get along with her. As we enter the seemingly typical home, we are enthralled by the decor of the insides. The walls are filled with artwork made of drift wood and copper. We later learn that Brett, a freelance handy-man by trade, built and welded most of these magnificent items.

After an early morning run through Brushy Creek Park, we head to SoCo, a hip area along South Congress Street, in Austin Texas. The street is filled with diversity and spontaneity, as we pass by a skater, a runner, a pair of traveling hippies, and a man dressed in a full Santa Claus outfit, crossing a bridge atop a galloping horse. Misha and I explore unique shops filled with vintage costumes, collectible books, well-preserved antiques, adorable hand-made souvenirs and other uncommon objects while discussing the carefree vibe in Austin. It’s a place of neither judgment nor a preferred style; a place where you can truly be yourself.

The rest of the afternoon is filled with laughter and Misha’s weirdness. We gradually make our way to HopeOutdoor Gallery, a hill containing wall after wall of graffiti art. A strenuous, short hike leads us atop the structure overlooking the city. We sit and enjoy the sunset.

Our last night in Austin is spent cooking a delicious salmon, red potato and asparagus meal for our lovely hosts and ourselves. We pop open a bottle of red wine and toast to old friends and new friends. A few hours of good conversation later, I make my way to bed while Misha plans the next part of our trip.